As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are verynarrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm. If you persist,lawyers’ clerks will have to make flying leaps into the mud; young ladytypists will have to fidget behind you. In the streets of London wherebeauty goes unregarded, eccentricity must pay the penalty, and it isbetter not to be very tall, to wear a long blue cloak, or to beat the airwith your left hand.
One afternoon in the beginning of October when the traffic was becomingbrisk a tall man strode along the edge of the pavement with a lady on hisarm. Angry glances struck upon their backs. The small, agitated figures — forin comparison with this couple most people looked small — decoratedwith fountain pens, and burdened with despatch-boxes, had appointments tokeep, and drew a weekly salary, so that there was some reason for theunfriendly stare which was bestowed upon Mr. Ambrose’s height and uponMrs. Ambrose’s cloak. But some enchantment had put both man and womanbeyond the reach of malice and unpopularity. In his case one might guessfrom the moving lips that it was thought; and in hers from the eyes fixedstonily straight in front of her at a level above the eyes of most that itwas sorrow. It was only by scorning all she met that she kept herself fromtears, and the friction of people brushing past her was evidently painful.After watching the traffic on the Embankment for a minute or two with astoical gaze she twitched her husband’s sleeve, and they crossed betweenthe swift discharge of motor cars. When they were safe on the furtherside, she gently withdrew her arm from his, allowing her mouth at the sametime to relax, to tremble; then tears rolled down, and leaning her elbowson the balustrade, she shielded her face from the curious. Mr. Ambroseattempted consolation; he patted her shoulder; but she showed no signs ofadmitting him, and feeling it awkward to stand beside a grief that wasgreater than his, he crossed his arms behind him, and took a turn alongthe pavement.
The embankment juts out in angles here and there, like pulpits; instead ofpreachers, however, small boys occupy them, dangling string, droppingpebbles, or launching wads of paper for a cruise. With their sharp eye foreccentricity, they were inclined to think Mr. Ambrose awful; but thequickest witted cried “Bluebeard!” as he passed. In case they shouldproceed to tease his wife, Mr. Ambrose flourished his stick at them, uponwhich they decided that he was grotesque merely, and four instead of onecried “Bluebeard!” in chorus.
Although Mrs. Ambrose stood quite still, much longer than is natural, thelittle boys let her be. Some one is always looking into the river nearWaterloo Bridge; a couple will stand there talking for half an hour on afine afternoon; most people, walking for pleasure, contemplate for threeminutes; when, having compared the occasion with other occasions, or madesome sentence, they pass on. Sometimes the flats and churches and hotelsof Westminster are like the outlines of Constantinople in a mist;sometimes the river is an opulent purple, sometimes mud-coloured,sometimes sparkling blue like the sea. It is always worth while to lookdown and see what is happening. But this lady looked neither up nor down;the only thing she had seen, since she stood there, was a circulariridescent patch slowly floating past with a straw in the middle of it.The straw and the patch swam again and again behind the tremulous mediumof a great welling tear, and the tear rose and fell and dropped into theriver. Then there struck close upon her ears —
Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the nine Gods he swore —
and then more faintly, as if the speaker had passed her on his walk —
That the Great House of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
Yes, she knew she must go back to all that, but at present she must weep.Screening her face she sobbed more steadily than she had yet done, hershoulders rising and falling with great regularity. It was this figurethat her husband saw when, having reached the polished Sphinx, havingentangled himself with a man selling picture postcards, he turned; thestanza instantly stopped. He came up to her, laid his hand on hershoulder, and said, “Dearest.” His voice was supplicating. But she shuther face away from him, as much as to say, “You can’t possiblyunderstand.”
As he did not leave her, however, she had to wipe her eyes, and to raisethem to the level of the factory chimneys on the other bank. She saw alsothe arches of Waterloo Bridge and the carts moving across them, like theline of animals in a shooting gallery. They were seen blankly, but to seeanything was of course to end her weeping and begin to walk.
“I would rather walk,” she said, her husband having hailed a cab alreadyoccupied by two city men.
The fixity of her mood was broken by the action of walking. The shootingmotor cars, more like spiders in the moon than terrestrial objects, thethundering drays, the jingling hansoms, and little black broughams, madeher think of the world she lived in. Somewhere up there above thepinnacles where the smoke rose in a pointed hill, her children were nowasking for her, and getting a soothing reply. As for the mass of streets,squares, and public buildings which parted them, she only felt at thismoment how little London had done to make her love it, although thirty ofher forty years had been spent in a street. She knew how to read thepeople who were passing her; there were the rich who were running to andfrom each others’ houses at this hour; there were the bigoted workersdriving in a straight line to their offices; there were the poor who wereunhappy and rightly malignant. Already, though there was sunlight in thehaze, tattered old men and women were nodding off to sleep upon the seats.When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was theskeleton beneath.
A fine rain now made her still more dismal; vans with the odd names ofthose engaged in odd industries — Sprules, Manufacturer of Saw-dust;Grabb, to whom no piece of waste paper comes amiss — fell flat as abad joke; bold lovers, sheltered behind one cloak, seemed to her sordid,past their passion; the flower women, a contented company, whose talk isalways worth hearing, were sodden hags; the red, yellow, and blue flowers,whose heads were pressed together, would not blaze. Moreover, her husbandwalking with a quick rhythmic stride, jerking his free hand occasionally,was either a Viking or a stricken Nelson; the sea-gulls had changed hisnote.
“Ridley, shall we drive? Shall we drive, Ridley?”
Mrs. Ambrose had to speak sharply; by this time he was far away.
The cab, by trotting steadily along the same road, soon withdrew them fromthe West End, and plunged them into London. It appeared that this was agreat manufacturing place, where the people were engaged in making things,as though the West End, with its electric lamps, its vast plate-glasswindows all shining yellow, its carefully-finished houses, and tiny livefigures trotting on the pavement, or bowled along on wheels in the road,was the finished work. It appeared to her a very small bit of work forsuch an enormous factory to have made. For some reason it appeared to heras a small golden tassel on the edge of a vast black cloak.